INTERVIEW: Alex Nicol, Edinburgh Gin
‘Bohemian? Yes, but the new distillery will make such a difference’
Order a gin and tonic at the Heads & Tales cellar bar in Edinburgh and you can see exactly where it is distilled – just across the room behind a row of glass screens.
This is one of the first of Scotland’s new generation of gin distilleries, and soon the company behind it will be opening a second.
Alex Nicol and his wife Jane run Edinburgh Gin and have been at the forefront of a revolution in the capital that has seen a number of distilleries launch in recent years. Demand has grown so fast for Edinburgh Gin that the tiny facility under the Huxley adjacent to the Caledonian Hotel cannot cope.
“We’re running out of capacity to meet demand,” says Alex, ahead of a trip down to Leith where the couple are opening a bigger distillery in a former biscuit factory.
It represents a £250,000 investment that will also turn the company from craft micro-distiller to something a little more industrial.
“We’ve got a fork lift, you know,” he says, proudly, as if stressing the point. By industrial, he means increasing capacity fourfold. It won’t turn Edinburgh Gin into a corporation overnight.
The “new” premises occupy a tiny ground floor corner of the semi-derelict Crawford’s factory which last year was turned over to community use for showcasing arts and other activities.
It is billed as having “plenty of room for studios, office space, galleries, a bar, cafe and hireable event space” and is part of the wider regeneration of Leith. The public will be invited to enjoy theatre, music, artworks and fashion events. There’s even talk of a community garden on the roof.
All of that requires some imagination and not a little effort. It is, to say the least, in a bit of a state. As we make our way to the distillery area we pass the remnants of a make-shift bar, left behind along with a row of glasses waiting to be filled, or washed. There’s clearly been a party, but you wouldn’t have wanted to dress in anything smart.
“It’s quite bohemian, don’t you think?” says Alex, breaking into a laugh as he stumbles through piles of left-behind fittings and workmen’s rubble to reach his new work rooms. The fork lift is hidden in an alcove, ready to load the first bottles. He leaps into the driving seat, like a boy with a new toy. “It’s second hand, but it will do for us.”
He examines the newly installed copper pots, and scans the bare breeze block walls and general air of neglect. He wears the look of a man wondering if they’ll be in production by the end of February as planned.
“We have a lot of work to do, but it will make such a big difference.”
It is also a bit different back at the Heads and Tales, a cosy refuge decked out in period-style seating and wood panelling that provides comforting insulation from the bustle above ground.
“We get a lot of tourists in here and we like to show them how gin is produced,” says Alex. A number of drinks enthusiasts and writers are milling around as the bar is hosting the launch of a new map, Scotland’s Gin Trail, which will be announced on Monday.
Edinburgh Gin comes under Nicol’s Spencerfield Spirits company, launched in 2005 and which was financed partly by himself, with support from Clydesdale Bank and Lombard Finance, as well as know-how from Heriot-Watt university. The first gins were blended and bottled at Broxburn. Turnover this year should hit about £3.4 million.
It is one of a dozen or so that have sprung up in Scotland, but not all will appear on the gin trail map. Alex last year won a minor battle with city rival Pickering’s Gin when the Advertising Standards Authority ruled over the latter’s claims about its heritage.
Alex says the issue has settled down, but the claim was “damaging” to the company and he said he wanted to make a point.
He is now focused on the Leith project, though he also wants to get into the duty free shops which are controlled by companies that prefer to stock well-known global brands. He believes the mood is changing.
“We get a lot of calls from people who’ve tasted our gin and want to buy it at the airport,” he says. Many of them may have got a taste during last year’s Edinburgh Festival when Edinburgh Gin kicked off a three-year sponsorship of St Andrew Square.
The company sold 92,000 units over the three weeks, mainly from a small van. “We’ll have a bigger van next year,” says Jane, who joins us.
The couple used to breed national hunt horses and they have plans to extend their sponsorship of Musselburgh races, including the Edinburgh Cup in June.
“It should be a lot of fun,” he says.
CAREER HIGHLIGHTS: Spent mainly with Whitbread, Glenmorangie, Scottish & Newcastle and Whyte & Mackay
How did you get started?
It all began when we bought the two whiskies, Sheep Dip and Pig’s Nose, from Whyte & Mackay in 2005. The business has evolved into a family affair Finlay, 30, who trained as a chef, is studying for his master’s degree in brewing and distilling at Heriot-Watt while working at the Edinburgh Gin Distillery. Daughter Harriet, 28, has been with the company since the beginning and is now using her events management degree to grow the business. Second daughter Hannah, 26, also helps out at events when required.
The cost of banking services to small companies
When did you last take a holiday?
We’re just back from Columbia. We got food poisoning.
What is the most valuable lesson that you have learned?
Stop trying to do everything yourself
Claim to ‘fame’?
Trying to get back into the London Business School where we were staying one night by climbing over a wall. One of the guys with me was a young man called Marc Bolland (now the outgoing chief executive of Marks & Spencer).
Photos: by Terry Murden